If you want to play Radiant Silvergun – and in a few hundred words you may – you’ll need two things: a Japanese Saturn and a spare £100. Everyone has tales to tell of the arms and legs they’ve paid for a longed-for game, whether it was stomaching £65 for Mario 64 or handing over £90 to an unscrupulous indie for a ‘rare’ copy of Super Street Fighter II. But every gamer who knows their way around eBay sucks their teeth and shakes their heads at the merest mention of Treasure’s landmark shooter. It’s a title that brings out every gamer’s inner plumber: ask after it and the most likely thing you’ll hear is a despairing ‘It’ll cost you…’
One of the last ever Saturn games, and limited to a Japan-only release with a modest manufacturing run (only around 35,000 were made), it was inevitable that Radiant Silvergun would end up a collector’s item. For fans of the game, this brings twin frustrations – first of the spiralling prices of second-hand copies, and second that those excessive prices have become the thing that the game is remembered for. Peerlessly intelligent, ambitiously inventive and gracefully realised, every square inch of the game is deserving of discussion, yet what gets talked about most is the only one that isn’t: the price tag.
Focus instead on the moody richness of the cover art, the classy coherence of the option screens and the monolithic permanence of the hi-score screen. Even the most incidental of visual details adds to the sense of significance – warning you that this isn’t going to be an experience to take lightly. And as the game begins, and your attention shifts from every square inch to every split second, that warning is borne out. Your sleek, deadly ship twirls from the foreground to settle into place on the 2D plane, a glorious future Earth spinning behind in 3D space, as with a disorienting swoop you’re thrown headlong into the sky.
Hitoshi Sakimoto, fresh from scoring Final Fantasy Tactics, arrives to accompany your progress, marshalling his midi orchestra to instil in you the grandeur of the task you face. Tubular bells peal out a resounding alarm, snares drill you to attention and harp trills stream by like stars. And, five minutes later, as the last of your three lives explodes in crimson flare, you’re left reeling. All you learn from your first encounter with Radiant Silvergun is how much there is still to learn.
And it’s this factor – the amount that there is to learn – that marks out Silvergun’s place in the scrolling shooter constellation. Before it, there were simply the tasks of diligently collecting every power-up, devotedly honing your reaction time, and systematically memorising every attack wave. But Treasure brought the full weight of its inventive power to a genre whose conventions were already becoming entrenched. Immediately lost were the power-ups, smartbombs and extra-life pick-ups that had become the core of the experience. Now, every weapon and every attack type was available from the first moment of the game. Next, each of these, like an RPG hero’s sword, could be upgraded through use, gaining power and capabilities with each hit you scored. It was a decision that at once introduced flexibility and strategy into a genre which had previously had next to none, and which ended the frantic scramble for pick-ups that made death in games like Gradius and R-Type so wretchedly ignominious.
Nonetheless, it was a decision that left most new players struggling to learn simply which button did what, before facing them with the task of learning the subtleties of each shot type and in which situations it could be used best. Many enemies, some of the architecture and most of the typically grandiose bosses required a puzzle-solving approach to matching your offensive skills to their defensive weaknesses, removing entirely the twitch and memory tests that earlier games had relied on for their challenge. Then, once this was mastered, came the task of deciding which attack to level up and in what order: Silvergun’s levels have to be mapped not just in terms of where you fly but what you shoot – and, of course, what you shoot at, since the game’s aggressively complex colour-coded combo system added yet another layer of strategy.
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